Campus carbon neutrality

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All across the world, colleges and universities are looking to a sustainable future by working to become carbon neutral. Universities are taking responsibility for their environmental impact and are working to neutralize those effects. To become carbon neutral, universities are working to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, cut their use of energy, use more renewable energy, and emphasize the importance of sustainable energy sources.[1] Universities that have committed to becoming carbon neutral have recognized the threat of global warming and are therefore committing to reverse the trend.[1]


  • Carbon Neutral: a term that recognizes all of the actions of a person, project or an institution that result in zero net carbon dioxide emissions. It can be achieved by increasing energy efficiency and improving energy conservation, as well as by using renewable energy.[2]
  • Carbon Offset: an emission reduction credit from a project that results in less carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than would otherwise occur. Carbon offsets are usually measured in tons of CO2 and can be created by renewable energy projects, energy efficiency, and land use and agriculture based projects.[3]
  • Sustainable: a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged; of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods .[4]
  • Carbon Footprint: a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide that is put into the atmosphere as a result of an individual's actions; driving, flying, home heating and cooling, as well as electricity use are some of the common activities that add to your carbon footprint.[5]
  • Carbon Calculator: measures an individual's or institution's impact on the climate by estimating how many tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases an individual's choices create each year. More than 90% of U.S. colleges and universities, and many outside the US, use the UNH Campus Carbon Calculator—the tool previously recommended by the U.S. EPA, the ACUPCC,[6] and others—to do their greenhouse gas inventories and climate action plans.[7]
  • Carbon Credit: a permit that allows the holder to emit one ton of carbon dioxide; credits are awarded to countries or groups that have reduced their greenhouse gases below their emission quota.[8]

Agreements and organizations in the United States[edit]

Second Nature[edit]

Second Nature is a nonprofit organization that works with higher education leaders to incorporate sustainability in with the foundation of curriculum and practice within colleges and universities.[9] Second Nature was among the first professional associations in sustainability, established in 1993 in Boston, Massachusetts.[10] It is the primary supporter for the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). Its involvement in ACUPCC includes coordinating cooperative action in developing a carbon offset protocol for universities, as well as coordinating outreach for new presidents to make the commitment to carbon neutrality.[9]

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education[edit]

A partner with Second Nature, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), was established in 2006 as the first professional higher education association for the campus sustainability community.[11] AASHE works with all sectors of a campus in integrating sustainability in with campus governance, education, and research.[11] Professional development is also emphasized through conferences, workshops, and networking.[10] Press releases, blogs, and awards are coordinated to promote carbon reduction and sustainable awareness. AASHE facilitates the reporting system for the ACUPCC, which documents all committed tangible actions and as well as greenhouse gas reports, climate action plans, and progress reports.

American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment[edit]

The American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC or PCC) is a project of Second Nature and AASHE.[12] The organization consists of the text of an institutional commitment and the supporting informational and marketing materials surrounding the commitment. The mission of the organization is to "provides a framework and support for America’s colleges and universities to implement comprehensive plans in pursuit of climate neutrality."[12] The ACUPCC grew from concept to text during late 2006, and by March 2007 consisted of 157 signatories.[12] The organization was officially unveiled in June 2007,[12] and currently numbers 677 signatories.[13]

Summary of ACUPCC text[edit]

The ACUPCC text can be summarized in two sections: the statement, and the plan. The statement is a four-paragraph declaration that outlines the scientific knowledge regarding global climate change that the signatories accept as fact. It goes on to describe the perceived or predicted institutional and social benefits of taking steps to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. The text proposes that by acting to limit their carbon footprint, universities and colleges can act as leader institutions in their communities, and similarly better serve their students and their educational needs. It concludes that, in accordance with the many resultant institutional benefits expected, leaders of educational institutions ought to commit to the steps outlined in the plan. The plan is a three-part outline of certain steps signatory institutions should take "in pursuit of climate neutrality." [14] The three parts of the plan involve developing a comprehensive plan, choosing from a menu of 'tangible actions' to initiate while developing a comprehensive plan, and issuing regular reports to AASHE regarding institutional progress. Comprehensive plan development under the ACUPCC follows three milestones. By the two-month milestone, signatories commit to having created formal institutional structures (and where appropriate, departments) for the express purpose of guiding the development of the plan as well as implementation of the other elements of the commitment. By the one-year milestone, signatories commit to having completed a greenhouse gas inventory, in accordance with the GHG protocol, with accordances in place to update the figures on a bi-yearly basis. The two-year milestone builds upon the greenhouse gas inventory, requiring that signatories create a comprehensive action plan for achieving climate neutrality. This action plan must include certain minimum elements: a target date for complete climate neutrality, intermediate institutional goals and target dates, steps to integrate climate neutrality and related concerns with educational curriculum and research, and institutional mechanisms for tracking intermediate goals above and beyond the specific structures outlined by the ACUPCC. The menu of possible actions includes conforming to LEED Silver standards or greater, purchasing Energy Star products, and encouraging and fostering use of public transportation. Finally, the reporting section of the three-part plan requires signatory institutions to make the details of their plans, inventories, and progress publicly available through AASHE. The final one-sentence paragraph of the text mentions the need to spread the knowledge contained in the commitment and recruit more signatories through institutional diplomacy.[14]

American University[edit]

In 2018, American University became the first university in the United States to reach carbon neutral status.[15]

Cornell University[edit]

Cornell University has signed the President's Climate Commitment and pledged that its Ithaca campus will have net zero carbon-based emissions by 2050.[16] Cornell has already completed a CO2 emissions inventory and estimated that its carbon footprint for the year 2008 was 319,000 metric tons of CO2-equivalent.[17] Cornell has created 19 initiatives to help it achieve its goal of net zero emissions which consist of five main categories: green development, energy conservation, alternative transportation, using renewable energy to replace fossil fuels, and offsetting CO2 emissions.[18] As part of its green development plan, Cornell wants “new buildings design[ed] to limit energy usage to 50 percent of the industry standard baseline.”[19] In addition, Cornell is planning on converting some of its built land back into open space and decreasing the distance vehicles on campus need to travel.[20] The energy conservation part of the plan includes switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs which would “reduce annual electrical usage for campus lighting by 25 percent."[21] The university also plans to reduce the amount of coal it uses by replacing its old steam line piping so that it is more efficient.[22] In order to achieve greener transportation, Cornell wants to reduce its employee use of single-occupant vehicles by 25 percent within 15 years.[23] It wants to achieve this goal by increasing bicycle and transit travel. Cornell also wants to reduce carbon emissions by having business meetings conducted via teleconferences instead of having employees travel for business.[24] Cornell wants to increase its reliance on renewable energy so it can decrease its reliance on fossil fuels. Cornell wants to use wood to replace “10 percent of the coal burned in the two main Cornell solid fuel boilers.”[25] Cornell is planning to take steps to offset its carbon emissions in order to become net carbon neutral, but it views this measure as a last resort because it would rather focus on reducing the amount of carbon it produces.[26] The university wants to contribute to afforestation by turning some of its unused cropland and pastures into forests that will absorb CO2.[26] Cornell wants to turn 100 acres (0.40 km2) per year into forest for the next 10 years, which it estimates to offset 3,800 metric tons of CO2 per year.[26] Additionally, established at Cornell is the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, an organization focused on multidisciplinary research in energy issues, the environment and economic development.[27]

University of Florida[edit]

In October 2006, University of Florida President Bernard Machen became the first college president to sign the President's Climate Commitment.[28] By signing, the University of Florida committed to developing an action plan for carbon neutrality with the ultimate goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2025.[29] In 2007, the University of Florida held the first carbon neutral college football game in NCAA history with the University of Florida versus Florida State rivalry game. To accomplish this feat, scientists calculated the carbon footprint of the game."[28] They then offset the carbon emissions by working with foresters to set aside 18 acres (73,000 m2) of rural North Florida land and then manage the land as a pine plantation forest for the next ten years.[30] In 2008, the University of Florida partnered with the Neutral Gator Initiative to offset the carbon emissions from all of the home football games. In 2009, the University upped the standard and set out to offset the entire athletics program in order to have a carbon neutral athletics program.[31]

Neutral Gator[edit]

The Neutral Gator Initiative was created by the organization Earth Givers along with the University of Florida to educate game day fans about sustainability and carbon neutrality as well as to offset the carbon emissions of the University of Florida's entire athletic program.[31] The goal of Neutral Gator is to help the University of Florida achieve its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2025. Neutral Gator offsets the carbon emissions through various activities including compact fluorescent light bulb exchanges, weatherization efforts in low-income households, and local as well as regional natural area restoration projects.[32]

Climate action plan[edit]

After signing the President's Climate Commitment, the University of Florida was required to create a climate action plan detailing the steps the university will take to reach its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2025. The plan focuses on the following:

  1. Foster organizational leadership and create a foundation for long-term institutional culture change in energy, water, and climate change mitigation and resource management.
    1. Treat energy flows and GHGE like dollars and track them with the same due diligence and transparency.
      1. Assess data concerns and direct relevant units to improve data collection at the original source.
      2. Expand the use of advanced metering infrastructure and enterprise building management systems.
      3. Create a plan to continuously improve energy consumption and GHGE data granularity from coarse, campus-wide detail to fine, building-scale and/or time interval detail.
    2. Integrate the CAP with the Vision for a Sustainable UF Implementation Plan.
    3. Coordinate the CAP with the Campus Master Plan.
    4. Refine and expand the use of methodologies and metrics to evaluate efficacy of energy efficiency and GHGE reduction strategies.
  2. Initiate, implement, and monitor the efficacy of key infrastructure energy efficiency strategies identified in the ongoing Energy Summits and outlined in the Office of Sustainability Vision and Implementation Plans.
  3. Continue and expand GHGE reduction campaigns via the Office of Sustainability Green Team Network and other outreach efforts with a focus on the conservation of electricity and water, the reduction of vehicle miles traveled, and utilizing the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) of materials and waste.
  4. Evaluate, finance, and install a minimum of 100 kW of on-site renewable energy generating capacity within the main campus and/or its local environs.[33]

Clean Air-Cool Planet[edit]

Clean Air-Cool Planet (CA-CP) was a Northeast-based nonprofit organization that was created in 2001. It partnered with colleges and universities (as well as other civil society institutions) to support their efforts toward carbon footprint reductions and ultimately, carbon neutrality. Before the establishment of the ACUPCC, the presidents of a number of leading Northeast schools signed Memorandums of Understanding with CA-CP,[34] committing themselves to 1) conducting campus-wide greenhouse gas inventories; 2) setting reduction targets and timelines; 3) creating climate action plans; 4) implementing the carbon reduction measures contained in their plans; and 5) communicating with their students, faculty, staff and community members to "institutionalize" a culture of sustainability on their campuses. These schools, many of which became leading members of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment when it was established in 2006 and/or have driven innovation and demonstrated international leadership on the issue of climate change in other ways.

The CA-CP Campus Climate Action Toolkit — which included the CA-CP Campus Carbon Calculator developed by CA-CP in partnership with the University of NH — was made available to the public in 2004.[35] The Campus Carbon Calculator was downloaded by users at thousands of different institutions, which include not only colleges and universities but also hospitals, science centers, museums and aquaria, government agencies, k-12 schools and businesses, many of which are actively working toward campus carbon neutrality. More than 90% of U.S. colleges and universities, and many outside the US, use the calculator to do their greenhouse gas inventories[36] and create climate action plans.[37][38]

In 2014, the University of New Hampshire's Sustainability Institute took over operations of Clean Air-Cool Planet.[39] The CA-CP Campus Carbon Calculator became a part of the Carbon Management and Analysis Platform, or CarbonMAP. CarbonMAP has many resources and tools to help organizations calculate and track their carbon use online.[40]

Although the UNHSI Campus Carbon Calculator is still a widely used tool for calculating a campus' carbon footprint, it has received critiques. Some researchers believe that using carbon emissions as a single metric for campus climate change impact is outdated. They suggest that UNHSI would benefit from combining their carbon calculator with a nitrogen footprint calculator to most precisely estimate a campus' climate impact.[41]

Campus leaders and student groups[edit]

University and college leaders have taken action to reduce campus carbon emissions in the following ways: purchasing renewable energy credits, installing micro-wind turbines, retrocommissioning HVAC systems, install geothermal or solar hot water systems, building cogeneration electrical plants on campus, upgrading lighting on campus, establishing campus green teams, providing free public transportation for students, staff, and faculty, providing financial incentives for carpooling, implementing car-sharing and/or bike-sharing programs, and implementing campus shuttle services.[42] Student clubs and organizations are active in raising awareness in various aspects of carbon neutrality. Climate change, sustainability practice, natural resource conservation, clean energy, and environmental policy are common focuses of student groups working toward carbon neutrality.[43]

Sustainable Endowments Institute[edit]

The Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI) is a nonprofit organization created in 2005 that supports sustainable development for campus operation and endowment policy.[42] The SEI focuses its efforts on various climate change initiatives, such as the College Sustainability Report Card and the Billion Dollar Green Challenge Program.

Billion Dollar Green Challenge Program[edit]

The Billion Dollar Green Challenge Program was started by the SEI and 15 other sustainability organizations to encourage colleges and universities to invest in green revolving funds.[44] The program requires that institutions involved collaborate and engage with other institutions in order to reach a collective $1 billion of investments.[45] The funds are then reinvested in green initiatives in participating campuses. As of 2016, 60 institutions are participating in the Billion Dollar Green Challenge and have committed $76 million toward green revolving funds.[46][47]

College Sustainability Report Card[edit]

From 2007-2011, SEI released the College Sustainability Report Card, which identified the leading campus sustainability efforts in the US and Canada.[42] Three hundred thirty two campuses were assessed via independent research and voluntary surveys, which included 48 indicators in nine categories: administration, climate change and energy, food and recycling, green building, student involvement, transportation, endowment transparency, investment priorities, and shareholder engagement. Each category was given a grade (A-F), and an overall grade was awarded to the school. Profiles of the colleges and universities were published on the report card website.[48] Each profile includes the overall grade, categorical grades, and a description of efforts in each category. The website aimed to identify leading colleges and universities, as well as provide information for other schools to learn and adopt sustainability policies used elsewhere.[42]

The Green Report Card was a highly regarded metric for campus sustainability, being used by researchers to assess environmentally-friendly campuses.[49][50] However, the Green Report Card also garnered some criticism for being redundant with other ratings of sustainability, specifically the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) by AASHE.[51]

In March 2012, the Sustainability Endowments Institute suspended the College Sustainability Report Card program to focus on the Billion Dollar Green Challenge Program.[52]

Brown University[edit]

Brown University is a leader when it comes to both campus sustainability and carbon neutrality. The university was one of only 26 universities across the country to receive an A- on the College Sustainability Report Card.[53] Brown University is working with the Sidney E. Frank Foundation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The program, named Community Carbon Use Reduction at Brown has received $350,000 and will help to reduce local carbon emissions through projects that will help meet the needs of Providence, Rhode Island neighborhoods while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The projects are created with the goals of: “Providing vibrant opportunities for learning for all those involved, engage non-university groups in thinking about how to increase the sustainability of the greater Providence area and its neighborhoods in a way that is responsive to the needs of the community, and lead to a measurable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions."[54] Brown University also has a plan to achieve carbon neutrality on campus. This plan entails carbon offset projects to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the local community and purchase carbon offset contracts."[55] Additionally, Brown’s Energy and Environmental Advisory Committee is working to retrofit lights, motors, and mechanical equipment in existing buildings in order to reduce the university’s environmental impact and its carbon emissions. The University is also a member of the Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition which comprises five universities and nine high schools within the state of Rhode Island. The coalition is working to have a bill passed that would enable an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2050.[56]

Other organizations[edit]

There are many organizations in coordination with Second Nature and AASHE. Some work to establish carbon-neutral goals within colleges and universities. These include the Disciplinary Associations Network for Sustainability (DANS), the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium, and the US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, and ecoAmerica.[57]

International legislation and agreements[edit]

Reducing carbon emissions has received international attention due to the theory that these emissions are one of the causes of global warming. There are national and internationally binding laws to try to reduce such greenhouse gases. If it were not for this legislation, universities would probably not be pushing for carbon neutrality themselves. Therefore, it is important to understand some of the key legislation when looking at how schools are trying to contribute to the solution.

The Kyoto Protocol[edit]

The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement that requires countries to commit to reducing the greenhouse gases they emit into the atmosphere. The protocol was created in Kyoto, Japan on December 11, 1997 and put into practice on February 16, 2005.[58] The protocol targets industrialized countries because they are the ones producing most of the greenhouse gases.[58] Specific chemicals that it wants to reduce are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, Sulfur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons, and perfluorocarbons.[59] Thirty-seven industrialized countries and parts of Europe have signed and are bound by the agreement. The United States is not one of them.[58] The Kyoto Protocol allots a specific amount of greenhouse gas emissions that each country can produce, however, countries can also trade emissions with other countries, resulting in the cap and trade system.[60] If one country has not used up all of its allotted emissions, it can sell them to other countries that have gone over their limit.[60]

The Montreal Protocol[edit]

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is an international agreement that seeks to phase out chemicals that damage the ozone layer.[61] The Montreal protocol was signed in 1987, went into practice in 1989, and was further amended in London in 1990 and in Copenhagen in 1992.[61] The protocol set a quicker timetable for industrialized nations to phase out chemicals than it did for developing nations. For example, developed countries were to phase-out chlorofluorocarbons by 1995, but developing countries have until 2010 to phase out this chemical.[62] Other chemicals that it wanted to phase out were halons, carbon tetrachloride, methyl chloroform, hydrochloroforlourocarbons, hydrobromofluorocarbons, and methyl bromide.[62]

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol[edit]

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol was created by the Climate Registry to establish a common method of reporting and measuring greenhouse gas emissions.[63] Thirty-four U.S. states, two Canadian provinces, and one American Indian tribe have joined.[63] Mexico, for example, is using the protocol a guideline for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. As part of its three-step plan, Mexico will have voluntary emissions reporting, then it will have a greenhouse gas cap, and finally it will follow a cap- and-trade system.[63] In addition, “forty-two of the largest corporations follow GHG Protocol standards.”[63]

Talloires Declaration[edit]

The Talloires Declaration is the first official statement of a commitment to environmental sustainability in higher education. The declaration was made in 1990 at an international conference in France. The Talloires Declaration is an action plan consisting of ten points that aim to incorporate sustainability and environmental literacy in teaching, research, operations and outreach at universities.[64] It was written with the premise that universities play a major role in the process of addressing and reversing the current trends of environmental changes because they prepare most of society's leaders and are therefore uniquely positioned to influence the direction that society takes.[65] By signing the Talloires Declaration, a university agrees to:

  1. Increase Awareness of Environmentally Sustainable Development
  2. Create an Institutional Culture of Sustainability
  3. Educate for Environmentally Responsible Citizenship
  4. Foster Environmental Literacy for All
  5. Practice Institutional Ecology
  6. Involve all Stakeholders
  7. Collaborate for Interdisciplinary Approaches
  8. Enhance Capacity of Primary and Secondary Schools
  9. Broaden Service and Outreach Nationally and Internationally
  10. Maintain the Movement [64]

Climate Neutral Network[edit]

The Climate Neutral Network is “an initiative led by the United Nations Environment Programme to promote global action to de-carbonize our economies and societies."[66] The initiative involves universities, colleges, and other academic institutions worldwide and its aim is to work together in order to transform so that they can have a zero emission future. Like the Presidential Climate Commitment, the Climate Neutral Network is designed with the premise that colleges and universities are vital components in addressing climate change "because they can model climate neutrality on their campuses, and they can teach their students skills and knowledge they need to address the climate crisis."[66]

University of Malaga (Spain)[edit]

University of Málaga (UMA) announced its participation in UNEP's Climate Neutral Network in July 2009.[67] As an urban campus, Malaga University has focused on building infrastructure and facilities for renewable energy production and fostering low-impact transportation to further its goals of being carbon neutral. In the realm of transit, the University plans on completing a subway line between the local city center and the University center by 2012,[68] as well as facilitating the growth of bicycle and pedestrian portions of traffic.[68] UMA has also planned or constructed installations of solar thermal and photovoltaic generation on its campus, and is currently constructing a photovoltaic installation aimed to produce one megawatt of energy for the school.[67][68] The school is also investing in co- and tri-generation technologies that incorporate fuel-burning generation and secondary heat capture aided by geothermal heat.[67] The campus' immediate goal is to rely entirely on sustainable sources of power.[69]

Tongji University (China)[edit]

Tongji University in Shanghai, China was one of the first six schools to join the Climate Neutral Network.[66] Tongji is using technology, management, and education and participation to meet its goal of using fewer resources.[70] Tongji is saving energy by using solar water heating and re-using waste water in its bath house.[70] Additional steps are being taken to save energy in many of the university’s buildings, such as “low-E windows, architectural sun shading, roof greening, and energy-saving lighting.”[70] The Wenyuan building, for example, uses “geo-heat pumps, thermal insulation systems, rainwater collection and recycling systems.”[66] The Tongji Fuel Cell Vehicle Engineering Center is helping to create fuel cell vehicles. These fuel cell powered sedans can travel 150 miles per hour and can “cover up to 300 miles after one hydrogen charging.”[66]

University of the West of England (UK)[edit]

University of the West of England is part of the Climate Neutral Network and with this, it is committed to reducing climate change. This entails reducing greenhouse gas emissions, so to accomplish this, the university developed a carbon management plan in partnership with Carbon Trust. The aim of the university’s carbon management plan is “to use energy more efficiently to progressively reduce dependency on fossil fuels and contribute to achieving the UK target of an 80 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050."[71] The critical objectives of the plan are to: "reduce energy use in buildings, including residential buildings; implement an energy awareness campaign; implement 80 percent of the technical carbon saving measures detailed in the Carbon Management Plan; aim to achieve BREEAM rating of at least “Very Good” for energy aspects of new buildings; and to consider the procurement of a proportion of electricity from renewable sources where economic to do so."[71] Additionally, the University of the West of England is a member of the West of England Carbon Challenge. As a member, the university has pledged to reduce its emissions over the course of four years in order to have an overall 10 percent decrease in emissions by 2012.[72]


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